NASA’s Toughest Week January 29, 2014Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Books, Mars, Space Shuttle
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Every year, NASA has a Day of Remembrance during this—its toughest—week.
On January 27, 1967, during a ground test of Apollo 1, a fire broke out. All three astronauts inside the spacecraft died.
On January 28, 1986, just 73 seconds into its 25th flight, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart and fell in pieces to the ocean below. All seven astronauts inside the crew compartment died.
On February 1, 2003, during re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere toward the end of its 10th mission, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart and fell in pieces over the southern United States. All seven astronauts perished.
We say, in those posts, the most disheartening thing about these accidents is that they were waiting to happen, that, particularly in the cases of the shuttle accidents, specific concerns had been raised about the problems that ended up causing the accidents.
We say there that the most horrific information to emerge about these accidents is that the astronauts’ deaths were not instantaneous.
We also talk about some of the good projects that emerged in the wake of these events, that commemorate the dedication of these astronauts and their belief in science and space exploration as important in this world and beyond it.
In those posts, we posted photographs of the crews and video. And we hope readers will go back to look at those posts this week. Here, we’ll turn to some of the words of the astronauts themselves.
Only days before his death inside the Apollo 1 spacecraft, Gus Grissom finished drafting his book Gemini: A Personal Account of Man’s Venture into Space. There, he wrote:
The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.
Christa McAuliffe, the teacher aboard Challenger that cold day at the beginning of 1986 said of herself:
This ordinary person is contributing to history.
Of students that she hoped to reach during the mission, she said in that same interview:
If they can make that connection [that ordinary people make history], then they’re going to get excited about history, they’re going to get excited about the future, they’re going to get excited about space.
Judy Resnick, who was also on the ill-fated Challenger flight, said the following:
I want to do everything there is to be done.
Thirty-seven pages of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon’s personal diary survived the fall to the ground when Columbia broke apart. On the sixth day of that mission, Ramon wrote:
I turned out to be a man who lives and works in space, just like in the movies.
Kalpana Chawla said in an interview before that doomed mission:
It’s easy for me to be motivated and inspired by seeing somebody who just goes all out to do something.
Last year, on NASA’s Day of Remembrance, President Obama said the following:
Each year, on NASA’s Day of Remembrance, we honor the crew of that Columbia flight, as well as those of Challenger and Apollo 1, and all the members of the NASA family who gave their lives in the pursuit of expanding our Nation’s horizons in space-a cause worthy of their sacrifice and one we must never forget.
And then he said that we’ll “eventually put Americans on Mars.”
Recap of 2013: 5 Posts to Re-Read January 1, 2014Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information, Science, Space Exploration, Video Interviews, Writing.
Tags: Space Shuttle, Books, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, SpaceX, Science Writing, Cancer
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As we begin 2014, we take a look back at Lofty Ambitions over the last year to see where we have been and where we might be going, to see how our interests emerge and shift, to share a few highlights in hopes that our readers take a few minutes to re-read one of our posts. We continue to focus on aviation and spaceflight, science of the 20th century and beyond, and writing as a couple, but we’ve explored these topics in new ways, and certain posts (or groups of posts) stand out for us.
IN THE FOOTSTEPS
Our first post of 2013 was “In the Footsteps: Jean Dayton.” Dayton arrived in Los Alamos when she was 19 years old to work on the Manhattan Project, and Doug met her when he was in graduate school at Oregon State University. This post is the most recent in our series about our travels to New Mexico and walking in the footsteps of the nation’s earliest nuclear scientists. Read the whole series HERE.
CANCER, RISK, & THE LANGUAGE OF LOSS
The most heart-wrenching post we wrote this year was “Cancer, Risk, & the Language of Loss.” We lost two college friends to cancer this past year, friends still in their 40s and with children and jobs they enjoyed. This post served as our tribute and an expression of our sorrow and gratefulness. We finally added “Cancer” as a tag and re-tagged other posts so that you can read more HERE.
VIDEO INTERVIEW: GWYNNE SHOTWELL
We started Lofty Ambitions in July 2010 and shortly thereafter decided that the end of the space shuttle program would be a major focus for us. Just over a year later, the last mission concluded, and now all the orbiters are tucked into their museum homes. SpaceX thinks they’re next, and its president Gwynne Shotwell told us why and how. We continued to post other interviews with astronauts, and all our videos thus far can be viewed on the Lofty Ambitions YouTube channel.
5 WOMEN WHO SHOULD HAVE WON THE NOBEL PRIZE
We usually keep our posts at Lofty Ambitions and at The Huffington Post distinct, but “5 Women Who Should Have Won the Nobel Prize” in October was an exception because we recognized its importance and wide appeal. That was a follow-up to an earlier piece we published at The Huffington Post titled “The Nobel Prize: Where Are All the Women?” in July. You can peruse all our HuffPost articles HERE, and we hope to make regular contributions there in the coming year.
THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE AND NATURE WRITING 2013
This past year, we explored with greater depth the area of science writing by attending the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop and Launch Pad as well as spending two weeks in August at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony to work on our writing without the usual routine distractions. We are very happy to share that we have been awarded another two-week residency at Dorland soon and plan to think about how to shape our lives in 2014 around our writing goals. Our most recent post about science writing is an overview of the annual anthology The Best American Science and Nature Writing, and we encourage our readers to use the information in that post to submit articles they read and enjoy in the coming year to the series editor.
Interview: Gerry Griffin October 23, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: Space Shuttle
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Gerry Griffin served as a flight director for NASA during the Apollo years and headed up Johnson Space Center in 1982-1986.
Since then, this lifelong Texan advised the directors of films such as Apollo 13, Contact, and Apollo 18, which Doug, in a watched for the first time this past (serendipitous) weekend, before we had decided exactly which video interview to post today. With Gravity now captivating audiences, we note what Griffin said in an interview about Apollo 18:
Isn’t it great that the American film industry is making stories about space. Some are realistic, others are not but they now want to make films that cover it all–from soup to nuts–from fact to fiction. I think it is great that our society now has a genre that includes space—one that has become part of the global fabric.
Last fall, we talked with Griffin in person. Here’s part of our conversation.
Interview: Mark C. Lee October 2, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: Space Shuttle
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One of the coolest things we’ve been able to do at Lofty Ambitions is to talk with astronauts. Check out all the VIDEO INTERVIEWS by clicking on the menu bar at the top of the page.
This week, we feature four-time Shuttle astronaut Mark C. Lee. His first flight was STS-30 in 1989, only months before the Lofty Duo became a duo. He flew his next mission with his then-wife, N. Jan Davis, whom he had married secretly, only to let NASA know after they were both ready to fly STS-47. In 1994, he performed hours of spacewalking, including some untethered time, unattached to anything and surrounded by the void.
Lee’s proudest moments as an astronaut, however, came on STS-82. On that 1997 mission, he did more extra-vehicular activity (EVA) to add spectrometers and repair other instruments on the Hubble Space Telescope. Watch the video to hear Lee talk more about EVAs, flying untethered, virtual reality, what he might do over, and why he thinks it was right for Shuttle to end.
Experiments in the Principles of Space Travel July 10, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Books, Science Writing, Serendipity, Space Shuttle
A book arrived in our mail last week. It came in a flat shipping envelope that revealed nothing of the character of its contents. However, those contents have revealed much to us. Books always do.
The cover didn’t promise much: a thick, industrial-blue cover with no meaningful imagery. The spine tag revealed that this book had come from a library. The numbers and letters on the tag were in the Dewey Decimal Classification format which, to Doug—the librarian—meant that it had likely come from a public library, a school library, or perhaps a smallish academic library.
A few years ago, Doug’s brothers, Richard and David, bought a school in Abingdon, Illinois, were they had grown up, and are converting what would have been an empty, unused building into a place for small businesses. In trying to decide what to do with books left in the school library, Doug’s sister Suellen had seen the book and knew that we would want it as soon as she read the title: Experiments in the Principles of Space Travel.
Upon opening the book, we could see that the paper checkout slip holder was stamped in all caps, ABINGDON JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL. The slip revealed names that Doug knew or had heard, names mostly of boys—one girl’s name appears in October ’69—who’d checked out the book. Inwardly, Doug was shocked, and just a little bit sad, that his own name didn’t appear in the list. In fact, during the years that Doug was in Junior High, the book hadn’t been checked out a single time. For nearly twenty years, between May 1972 and May 1991, Experiments in the Principles of Space Travel sat idle, waiting to be needed. May 1991 was its last checkout, and the Junior High later moved—apparently without the library—to the same building as the high school.
Experiments in the Principles of Space Travel, was written in 1955 by Franklyn M. Branley. When we searched for information, we found a couple of other bloggers who’d mentioned the book only weeks ago (here is one). We also discovered that Branley had written more than 140 books, among them the Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out series of science books. He also served as the head of Hayden Planetarium, a spot that astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson now holds. Branley died in 2002 at the age of 86.
In 1955, when Experiments in the Principles of Space Travel was published, Russia had not yet launched Sputnik, and the space program in the United States was yet to ramp up with Mercury, hit its stride with Gemini, and fulfill its promise with Apollo. October 1, 1969, is the first due date on the checkout slip, roughly three months after Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins went to the moon on Apollo 11. By then, the book was fourteen years old, and some of its ideas were already dated.
Other ideas in the book might have seemed shocking to a twelve-year-old in the late 1960s. In the book’s first chapter, when discussing the problems of bringing along enough food on multigenerational, interplanetary missions, the author suggests a possible solution to sustaining—well, how to say it? If you’ve seen the movie Soylent Green or the “Bart to the Future” episode of The Simpson’s, you know the answer: the younger generations would consume the older generations during the extended journey between planets. Twelve-year-old readers, no matter what year it is, might well find the author’s solution to the problem of not enough food for the long trip, creepy-cool.
The book, however, is essentially about simple experiments, ostensibly related to space travel, that can be performed at home. There are experiments to teach children about streamlining, drag, and airflow over surfaces. Another experiment explains parallax and how it can be used to measure distances. The tabletop apparatus needed for a parallax-based measuring device, which the author points out is similar to naval optical range finders used in WWII, is described with detailed steps for its construction.
Reading the instructions, we were often struck by the asides that Branley makes, such as, “If a power saw is available and you have permission to use it, this will give you better cuts.” Branley doesn’t recommend adult supervision for using the power saw, only permission. Warnings like this permeate the book. The experiment on streamlining and drag involves cutting metal and contains its own aside in a parenthetical: “(Caution: Edges of tin may be sharp. Be careful to push only on the flat surface.)” Other experiments involve drills, heat lamps, and open flame.
This book brought back memories of our own childhoods. Anna helped her father put in a drop ceiling—including insulation—in a basement and helped him build a dollhouse out of plywood. In Doug’s case, he especially remembers watching his brothers and friends like Joey Kjellander, all of whom were more adept with tin snips, soldering irons, and drills. Doug himself wielded a jigsaw now and then.
Of course, reading Branley’s book also reminded us how how much things have changed. In particular, “Chapter Four: Powering the Ship” includes experiments that would likely strike modern readers as fairly dangerous. One fairly complicated experiment involved a sealed coffee can, corn starch, and a candle. Analogies to the inner workings of various kinds of combustion engines are made: piston engines, jet engines, and rocket engines. But let’s be honest here. While combustion may be an engineer’s term, what the author means is an explosion. To Branley’s credit, he comes out and says it: “There will be a sharp explosion and the lid will blow off the can.”
The sort of experiment encouraged by Branley in 1955 resulted in Kiera Wilmot being arrested and expelled from school in 2013. Wilmot knew that it would cause some smoke to mix toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil before school one April morning. She thought of it as a science fair experiment, though her science teacher wasn’t there. When the principal heard the loud pop and saw the smoke—more smoke than Wilmot had expected—zero tolerance kicked in, and felony charges ensued.
Homer Hickam heard about Wilmot’s predicament. The charges had been dropped, but the girl’s academic future remained in question. At NASA, Hickam trained astronauts for Spacelab and the International Space Station. But we imagine Hickam’s early days, perhaps grabbing Experiments in the Principles of Space Travel from his local library the summer it was published, when he was twelve years old. One doesn’t have to stretch one’s imagination too far to know what Hickam’s childhood entailed, for he wrote the memoir Rocket Boys, which was made into the film October Sky. He and his friends launched 34 rockets as teenagers.
Homer Hickam to Kiera Wilmot’s rescue. Hickam is sending Wilmot and her twin sister to the Advanced Space Academy designed for high-schoolers. Undoubtedly, Wilmot will be introduced to all sorts of experiments in the principles of space travel.
For some up-to-date space-related experiments for kids in grades 5-8, check our NASA’s suggestions HERE.
We, too, are off to a science camp of sorts and will write more about that later this month.
Video Interview: Gwynne Shotwell July 3, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: Space Shuttle, SpaceX
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Recently Gwynne Shotwell, the President of SpaceX, visited Chapman University for TEDx, and Lofty Ambitions had an exclusive video interview with the space exploration maverick. You need to watch this interview below!
Forbes has named Shotwell, who joined SpaceX in 2002, a “woman to watch.” Her alma mater, Northwesten University, calls her “Rocket Ma’am.” She’s in the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame.
In Popular Mechanics, Shotwell said, “I think we need to get back to that place where American ingenuity is a no-brainer. I feel like we’re far behind and it bothers me. It’s a personal focus for me to make sure that people understand what engineering is and not be afraid of it, because I think fear is what keeps people from doing things. Engineering is one of the coolest professions on the planet—soon to be one of the coolest professions on other planets.”
“Hit that failure, find that milestone, figure out where things don’t work.” That’s what she told us, and that’s just the sort of approach we believe at Lofty Ambitions. This is a go-getter who wants to get us to Mars!
Photo Essay & Interview at Fifth Wednesday Journal July 1, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Information, Space Exploration.
Tags: Books, Space Shuttle
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Our photo essay about Titusville, Florida, appears in the Spring 2013 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal. “The End of an Era for the Town That Launched It” chronicles our visits to the place where many Kennedy Space Center workers live and examines the effects of the end of the space shuttle program on the people who lived launch to launch.
Fifth Wednesday Journal wanted to know more about why we were writing about the space program, what it means for the nation, and whether we should go to Mars. Our conversation with Annie Bruckner appears on the magazine’s blog.
“Manifest Destiny is really a nineteenth-century concept; it smacks of conquering and empire. The space program, for a while, during the space race with the Russians at least, drew from this deeply ingrained concept that Americans held. NASA and the space shuttle, however, also shifted our ideas of what exploration means. Maps had changed by the end of the twentieth century, and we were moving away from that old notion that drove land acquisition and remaking others around the world in our image.”
“We’d like to think Curiosity is the new way to think about exploration, that the goal of exploration is not about expansion of territory, as it was in the nineteenth century or during the space race, and that space exploration remains part of twenty-first century ambitions. By Curiosity, we mean inquisitiveness, the desire to learn and know, and we also mean the amazing Mars rover named Curiosity. Unmanned space exploration has long been part of space exploration, and probes, rovers, telescopes, and all sorts of technology have come a long way, in part because of space exploration. Though human space flight should and probably will be important in the future — as both a means and a goal — robotics and virtual exploration are already playing a big role in the twenty-first century and will probably continue to surprise us.”
“Going to Mars will be very hard. When we spoke with shuttle astronaut Michael Barratt, who holds an MD and researches effects of radiation on the human body, he indicated that, using current knowledge and technology, it’s iffy whether anyone could survive the trip to Mars because of the radiation exposure along the way. Solar events, alpha particles, and ‘the really high-energy cosmic rays’ beyond Earth’s orbit are all forms of radiation, which, Barratt says, is ‘the major question mark—slash showstopper—for interplanetary travel.’ Imagine what it would mean to all of us if scientists and engineers were working a lot harder on the problem of radiation exposure and limiting the dangerous effects. That research will happen if we foster a serious, concerted effort to put humans on Mars.”
Read more of our interview at the magazine’s blog HERE.
Tags: Biology, Books, Cognitive Science, Science Writing, Space Shuttle
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The Best American Science Writing 2012, Series Editor Jesse Cohen
This collection is a wonderful mish-mosh of essays, from novelist and physicist Alan Lightman’s explanation of the multiverse in “The Accidental Universe” to Charles C. Mann’s investigation of “The Birth of Religion.” If you have the least bit of interest in science writing—and definitely if you’re trying to break into the field of science writing—this anthology is worth reading cover to cover. If you don’t want to read the collection in its entirety, be sure to browse the abstract at the beginning of each piece to make your selections.
The collection opens with “Mending the Youngest Hearts” by Gretchen Vogel. The piece runs less than five pages but gives a good update on the use of stem cells through one example of blood vessels. “The lab-made blood vessels are meant for children whose severely malformed hearts are unable to supply their bodies with enough oxygen.” The research isn’t finished yet, as is often the case wit important research, in which investigation leads to new information and questions. Also, there exist risks to implanting lab-generated tissues and organs, but successful lab-grown livers and tracheas have paved the way for new studies.
The first piece we read in The Best American Science Writing, however, was P.J. O’Rourke’s brief take on “The Last Shuttle Launch” because the end of the space shuttle program has captured our attention these last few years. O’Rourke’s piece has a nice intergenerational angle—he takes his seven-year-old son to Kennedy Space Center for the shuttle’s last launch. We wish “the end of an era” hadn’t become a cliché long before that last launch, and we wish O’Rourke had been listening long enough to the conversation surrounding the end of the shuttle program to avoid that phrase in his piece. We wish he hadn’t unabashedly stuck up for the concept of Manifest Destiny; though it can’t be dismissed as part of our cultural tradition, it’s a complicated analogy that doesn’t easily fit the shuttle program. That said, O’Rourke touches on some of the issues we’ve been contemplating as members of what we have dubbed Generation Space. And his son’s enthusiasm and expectations give us hope that the next generation will get their feet off the ground too.
In between the beginning and the end of this anthology, there’s plenty for space nerds to read: “The Early Adopter’s Guide to Space Travel” by Erik Sofge, “”Stellar Oddballs” by Charles Petit, and “Symmetry: A ‘Key to Nature’s Secrets’” by Steven Weinberg.
The anthology also offers plenty about the brain and mind: “Beautiful Brains” by David Dobbs, “Criminal Minds” by Josh Fischman, “The Limits of Intelligence” by Douglas Fox, and “It’s Not a Game” by Jaron Lanier.
The collection ends with a heart-wrenching story by Rachel Aviv called “God Knows Where I Am.” This essay chronicles the last few years of Linda Bishop’s life as a psychiatric patient who lacks what the field calls “insight”; Bishop never agreed with the diagnosis psychiatrists made and hoped to prove that she was not mentally ill. Bishop was released from psychiatric care: “[S]he left the hospital with only pocket change, no access to a bank account, and not a single person aware of where she was going.” She thought she might crochet and sell mittens to get by. Readers will need to read the whole essay to get the rest of the story.
We suggest that you pick up a copy at your local independent bookstore, or consider ordering a copy from Powell’s HERE.
For all the Lofty Ambitions posts about science writing, click HERE.
Space Tech Expo: Commercial Crew May 22, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Dryden Flight Research Center, Space Shuttle, SpaceX
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The Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Program is a federally funded, NASA-generated process to foster the efforts of private industry to develop low-Earth orbit. In other words, NASA stopped flying the space shuttle and wants to help private companies take over some of the work that the shuttle did, namely transporting cargo and crew to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA and private industry also want to work together to develop other projects in low-Earth orbit.
The big talking point about this investment of our tax dollars in getting companies like SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, and Boeing off the ground and beyond the atmosphere is that NASA will be able to focus on space exploration beyond our planet’s orbit. The focus at Space Tech Expo, though, is on private industry and the business of space travel.
In 2010, NASA invested $50M in five private companies. In 2011, NASA invested $315M in four companies and also supported unfunded contracts to three additional companies. Last August, NASA made awards under the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative to three companies: SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, and Boeing. Those three 2012 awards totaled $1,112,500,000—that’s 1.1 billion dollars. If you add all that up, NASA could have paid for three shuttle launches over the last three years. So the rise of Commercial Crew doesn’t mean that NASA has handed over orbital space travel to private industry but, rather, that NASA helps boost private companies up to orbit.
NASA has set up a new kind of relationship with the aerospace industry. Each company is responsible for day-to-day design decisions. Without the need to continually negotiate with NASA about small design changes in the space vehicle, the design process is streamlined and becomes more efficient, or at least design and development of a vehicle and system take less time. NASA retains oversight, of course, and maps out the path to certification. In addition, each company has hired a former shuttle astronaut to be an integral part of spacecraft development. The relationship between the aerospace industry and NASA seems to be exceptionally good right now.
Numerous private industry players showed up at the Space Tech Conference in Long Beach, California, to tout their accomplishments. The three companies awarded the CCiCap money for development presented their stories and plans on Tuesday.
SpaceX was represented by Garrett Reisman, an astronaut we’ve met before. He’s excited about his new role and about what he considers a Golden Age of Spaceflight occurring right now. SpaceX is moving at a good clip and has already begun to resupply ISS with the Dragon spacecraft, a capsule reminiscent of Apollo days. The company is actively working to adapt the capsule for crew transportation, which involves adding a launch abort system. SpaceX Founder, CEO, and Chief Designer Elon Musk wants to go to Mars, too, and Reisman thinks that’s a great idea. While biological challenges remain, Reisman is convinced that the engineering problems for a Mars trip have already been solved. He said, “We’re trying a little bit of everything.”
CEO Mark Sirangelo spoke for Sierra Nevada. He calls the Dream Chaser vehicle “what the shuttle might have been if the shuttle had been redesigned for the future.” That company’s vehicle is now at Dryden Flight Research Center for a series of flight tests that follows the test-flight plan used for space shuttle Enterprise. Dream Chaser is a lifting body like the space shuttle, and, like that first shuttle, the first Dream Chaser is not intended for space travel. Former astronaut Steve Lindsey is at Sierrra Nevada and is working with NASA Langley on developing a flight simulator for the vehicle. The company has begun construction of the first orbital Dream Chaser.
Boeing’s John Mulholland represented the old-timer of the aerospace industry. Boeing is working on the CST-100 capsule and has met 8 of 19 development milestones on schedule. Safety is something NASA will be looking for in the certification process for all these orbital spacecraft, so Mulholland emphasized, “It was really important to ensure we’re driving safety early in the design.”
Mulholland pointed out that Boeing can “shamelessly steal from other Boeing projects” and that all the companies can steal ideas and designs from Shuttle and Apollo. He called his fellow panelists and the companies they represent “the teammates.” The others chimed in that that’s the way it’s working. They are competitors, but these companies can build on each other’s success and can work with NASA as a team to help refine the certification process. The aerospace industry has never put on a more cheerful face than it has these days.
We’ll have more about commercial crew and about the Space Tech Expo. And be sure to check out our ongoing series “Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular.”
Tags: Science Writing, Space Shuttle
“Read. Read other people,” Wall Street Journal reporter Robert Lee Hotz advised participants at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. “Go read Jane Austen. How did she pull it off? […] Look for techniques.”
Hotz is a long-time journalist whose work includes an amazing six-part series about the Columbia space shuttle accident investigation called “Butterfly on a Bullet.” He’s covered genetic engineering and earthquakes. He’s been to the Arctic and the Antarctic in search of a story. So when he shared his notions of the nuts and bolts of science writing, we were listening attentively.
Before a writer even gets started on a project, whether it be a news story, a magazine feature, or a book, Lee advises that he or she shed preconceptions because those assumptions can make a person deaf to what’s really being said. He insists, too, that writers can’t write what they haven’t reported. In other words, writing is the culmination of a lot of information gathering and sifting.
In Hotz’s view, “Facts are transformative.” He firmly believes that people need information, not assertions, so that they can make more informed decisions about their lives. He calls himself an obsessive researcher and, in the midst of research, knows that he will use just a tiny fraction of what he’s gathered. “But you don’t know in advance which 1%.” Readers may learn a great deal from reading a piece by Hotz, but his goal isn’t teaching science to his readers. He wants to gather, organize, and share facts about the world and universe in which we live so that we can make better decisions for ourselves.
The core of Hotz’s talk focused on the following rules of thumb for doing science writing (or perhaps any kind of research-based nonfiction):
- Look people in the eye. “Get out of your office,” Hotz said. “Talk to people directly.” There’s really not substitute for in-person interviews if you have that time and money.
- Character matters. Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, agrees with this point, and once said at an AWP Conference, “People need stories in order to read the science.” And stories need characters.
- History matters. The past provides a context for understanding subjects, facts, events, and issues. Hidden connections may reside in this sort of research, and it’s story is part of the word history.
- Find a guide. In other words, Hotz said, “Look for a person who can blaze a path for you into the thicket.” Hotz had a guide crucial for his research into the Columbia investigation who never appeared in the published story.
- Organize as you go. At Lofty Ambitions, we’re familiar with being in the midst of events or research and not having time to stop to organize everything we’re accumulating. Drafting our book proposal forced us to organize our thoughts and writing, but it might have been easier if we’d had a system going into the project (which we might have developed if we’d realized from the get-go that it was a big project). Hotz recommends yellow legal pads and DevonThink (software that author Steven Johnson also recommend when we saw him read a couple of years ago).
- Piece it together. Outline. Build the outline with information. Use footnotes to indicate where you got the information so that you don’t accidentally plagiarize later and can provide the footnotes to a fact-checker later.
- Begin in the middle. Hotz recognizes that other writers get stuck perfecting the first sentence before going on. He advises, “Don’t begin, just start.” Writing chunks and scenes without worrying about order can help a writer build a draft more quickly. Or write in chronological order, even though you know the information will need to be reordered later. “I personally believe there’s no such thing as writer’s block,” Hotz asserted. “It’s a writing and thinking problem.”
- Structure matters. Referring to his Columbia story, Hotz said, “Structure mattered to the space shuttle itself, and it mattered to the piece I was writing.” He emphasized that how we know something—who said it, how we found it, how it fits into the story—can matter as much as what we know.
Ta-dah, you have a story—an article or a book.
And then it goes to an editor. Hotz has great respect for his editors and reminded us that, ultimately, the editors are right even if you disagree. The important thing to remember is that when an editor suggests a change, something stopped that reader. The editor may have a good fix, or the writer may need to figure out how to rework the story so that readers aren’t tripped up or distracted.
As a result of our individual conversation with Lee Hotz, we’re already in the midst of figuring out how to rework our story. The process is both daunting and exciting, and that’s why we do it.
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